Yet another eccentric English genius

Another film about an English eccentric, this one about a hundred years after William Turner. I must confess that I haven’t yet come across a single person I know who liked Mr. Turner. It seems to me there are an awful lot of people who go to the cinema, who seem to think that the central character must be of noble character, stirling virtue, and personally likeable. Or perhaps they are looking for a simple plot, along the lines of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again just before the credits but immediately after a fifteen minute car chase. I will only say that if you have seen St. Vincent and you liked it, you should ignore any advice I might give you about going to the movies.

The film under review this time is The Imitation Game (Rotten Tomatoes, critics 89% and the audience 95%; IMDb 8.4). Based on a true story, and therefore, of course, almost certainly false at every moment of drama in the plot, it was still fun and engaging. And although filled with many modern pieties, put on display to flatter the moral vanity of the audience, I nevertheless found none of it cloying or in the way of the plot. The story is based around the life of Alan Turing, about whom I knew about as much as I knew about Turner. It provided interesting detail and a rounded human story, embedded in the drama surrounding the winning of the war against the Nazis. Like Turner, Turing was a genius, driven by his obsessions. Unlike Turner, it seems, it is a film that is likely to generate more sympathy for the central character.

The background of most of the film is the effort required to break the Enigma code. Fascinating to see the effort up on screen. I don’t know how much of the drama shown was particularly accurate, but it didn’t worry me all that much either. It drove the story along, neatly structured around flashbacks and flash forwards. I have been to Bletchley Park and spent a very full day there a couple of years ago. If you are ever in the vicinity, it is well worth your time. In the meantime until you do get there yourself, this is a film likely to keep you satisfied, although I am a bit sore given all the flak I have been getting from people to whom I have recommended Mr. Turner, which, by the way, is a recommendation I completely stand by still.

Mr. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA

turner the slave ship

This is not a movie for everyone, which I only know because the people I went with thought it was about an hour too long. I, on the other hand, could have gone on another hour or so, and that was after two and a half hours already. If you are looking for car chases, or romantic liaisons between young persons with movie star looks, this is not for you. But if you are interested in the life story of a great artist that begins with more than half his life already past, that is, when he is an old man, and full of the tics that come with having lived a life, then this is a film you should see. It is 98% for critics and 90% for audiences at Rotten Tomatoes; the more plebeian IMDb gives it 7.0.

The film is Mr. Turner and is about the great early nineteenth century artist William Turner. On the day I was told I had passed my PhD I went out and bought a copy of “The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ tugged to her Last berth to be broken up”, which I had long admired, but needed a serious reason to spend the money. It hung in my office for years, and I have never been to London without going to the National Gallery to see it.

But about Turner, I knew very little, astonishingly little. I know his paintings, a touch of his philosophy and hardly a thing about his life. If nothing else, you end up knowing more than you otherwise would have, and all of it is of interest. And to the extent that Wikipedia is to be counted on, the film follows his life more or less in the way it was. The scenes at the RA, or with his fellow artist Benjamin Haydon, are haunting.

There are two parts to the film that particularly appealed to me. First, it is the cinematography. Serious effort was made to recreate the world that Turner lived in as seen through his eyes. You see the seascapes he had seen, and if you know his paintings, you see a recreation of what he saw himself. “The Fighting Temeraire” makes a brilliant and unexpected entrance. Obviously to others as well, this is the Turner painting that matters.

But what truly got to me was its philosophy, which was Turner’s philosophical thinking, at least so far as I understand it. “The Fighting Temeraire” is not some conservative lament on the disappearance of the old, but a depiction of the coming of the new. It is the tugboat that is, in its own way, the star, as a representation of the different world emerging out of the past. I don’t think this is a spoiler, but the scene near the very end where Turner sees the first of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings being hung at the RA, and which brings an enigmatic smile to his face which is not explained, is part of that approach to his life that is brought out. I think here, too, he may have also admired the new world of artistic expression that was about to descend. There are many more touches like it in the film, but I will say no more, other than to suggest you go see it for yourself.